The sexualization of the American college…

I Am Charlotte Simmons

“Dorm Brothel” was published in Christianity Today in 2005.  In this article, Vigen Guroian provided a small window into the sexual chaos on American campuses that Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, had chronicled in greater detail just a year earlier, in 2004.


Tom Wolfe visited “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places” during four years of preparation for writing his novel.  He told one interviewer that he came to write about college life after realizing that “college has more and more replaced the church as the source of new values, of new ethical outlooks.”  Elsewhere he said, “Sex, booze, and status have always been part of the college scene.”  But the current situation is different. “[W]ith a few exceptions, universities have totally abandoned the idea of strengthening character, and this enormous change” seems to have been “hardest on young women.”


“Dorm Brothel” presented the very same storyline as I Am Charlotte Simmons:  There is a “new debauchery” on campus, and “the colleges … let it happen.”  The particular college Dr. Guroian had in mind was Loyola College in Baltimore, where he was teaching in 2005.


As a college professor and father of a college-age daughter, however, I am outraged by the complicity of my college and most other schools in the death of courtship and the emergence of a dangerous and destructive culture of “hooking up.” …


Young men and women are being enticed to think of themselves as two selves, one that is mind and reason in the classroom and another self, active “after hours,” that is all body and passion. They begin to imagine—though few entirely believe it—that they can use (that is, abuse) their bodies as they please for pleasure, and that choosing to do so has nothing to do with their academic studies or future lives. In reality, they are following a formula for self-disintegration and failure.


This is the grisly underbelly of the modern American college; the deep, dark, hidden secret that many parents suspect is there but would rather not face. The long-term damage to our children is difficult to measure. But it is too obvious to deny. I remember once hearing that the British lost the empire when they started sending their children away to boarding schools. I do not know whether anyone has ever seriously proposed that thesis. I am prepared, however, to ask whether America might not be lost because the great middle class was persuaded that they must send their children to college with no questions asked, when in fact this was the near-equivalent of committing their sons and daughters to one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno. …


Today, twenty years after the publication of “Dorm Brothel,” Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia.  The recent national outcry provoked by accusations of gang rape at the University of Virginia, published in Rolling Stone magazine, prompted Dr. Guroian to revisit the “sexualization of campus life”—which he did with colleague William Wilson, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Virginia.


Their “Sex and Danger at UVA:  An Argument for the University’s Complicity in the Destructive Culture of Sex” appears in the May 2015 issue of First Things, as well as online.  The accusation of gang rape proved to be false.  But “Our experience … predisposed us to assume that something like that which had been described may have happened.”


Over the years, we have listened to our students and have received testimonies in written assignments and personal correspondence about the toxic sexual environment that this university and many others have harbored. A recent female graduate of the University of Virginia wrote the following for a class assignment:


Sex pervades almost every aspect of dorm life that I have experienced. I have seen “dorm incest” (the entire floor hooks up with everyone else on the floor), [been] “sexiled,” by my roommate having sex on my dorm bed, and witnessed date rape . . .


Another young alumna describes the dorm life that she encountered when she entered the university.


I arrived at UVA first semester just like many other female University students—wanting to make friends, excited for romance (genuine romance), and getting to know bright and intellectually motivated young men and women. Much to my surprise things were not so. . . . I had been thrown with others carelessly into a long-term hotel.


Most of the people in your dorm were in the “friend zone.” Everyone was a “guy.” But even with sweatpants on we recognized we had different body parts and late at night with a couple of beers things got more intimate. We were not so much male and female as we were xx who logically should give xy what they want and what we have. We were all one mutually using and abusing non-family. …


Unfortunately, the university’s response is procedural, lacking the necessary moral and personal ingredients that could make a difference.


Codes of sexual conduct, like these we have cited from the University of Virginia, are not what they seem. They are not preventive measures in the real world. The young women who visited Wilson when he was dean of the Echols Scholars Program and revealed to him that they had been raped or assaulted sexually were not complaining that university rules about sexual conduct had been violated or their autonomy compromised. They came to him deeply wounded; the only thing left for them to salvage was their pride in themselves as young scholars. They needed to be heard in a personal way, by someone they perceived as having moral authority capable of helping them determine how to live their lives.


Administrative and juridical rules supported by sanctions cannot make a humane culture. Only moral convictions about right and wrong ensconced in manners and customary restraints can ensure a healthy culture of relations between the sexes. Consent does not suffice for a sexual morality, not even in deciding right from wrong. Bad and harmful sex can happen even when there is consent. Human beings often consent to being acted upon in ways that will do them harm. Does consent alone make it right for me to do something with or to someone to which she has agreed but that I know will harm her?


Statements such as the following in the University of Virginia’s document on sexual violence are not neutral in content. “The University urges students to exercise extreme caution before engaging in sexual activity when either or both parties have been consuming alcohol.” This is a morally bankrupt and aseptic admonition. It gives the approval, if only with a nod, to the sexual free-for-all that wreaks such havoc on the lives of young men and women. And we should add, it has little or no influence over its audience. Youths do not heed voices that lack moral conviction.


Coming to grips with what we, the university, have done to our students, and are doing to them even now, calls for a full recognition of the irresponsibility of our current and past posturing of moral innocence, as well as for a critique of an ideology of consent that leaves very little moral ground on which to stand. …


Mary Ann Glendon, a Roman Catholic law professor at Harvard University, wrote a review of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons in which she said that his book should be mandatory reading for all parents sending a child to college.  Much of her review can be summed up by two equally damning points:


Not only have institutions of higher education decisively rejected the role of shaping character.


They are increasingly populated by students whose parents have abdicated their own responsibility.



Sex and Danger at UVA:  An Argument for the University’s Complicity in the Destructive Culture of Sex” appears in the May 2015 issue of First Things.


Dorm Brothel:  The new debauchery, and the colleges that let it happen” by Vigen Guroian is also available online, at the website of Christianity Today.


Mary Ann Glendon’s review I Am Charlotte Simmons, “Off at College,” is also online.





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